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With New Maps Proposed, April Primary Stays Alive

Attorney General Greg Abbott said he had reached agreement on most parts of the redistricting maps with most of the parties involved. Absent from the deal are the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP.

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In an attempt to save the April primaries, the state unveiled new redistricting maps Monday, saying some of the parties in that litigation have signed off on at least some of the lines.

Attorney General Greg Abbott announced he had reached agreement on most parts of the maps with most of the parties involved. Notably absent from the deal are the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus, the NAACP, the so-called Davis plaintiffs and the Texas Democratic Party, which sued over the Senate district maps in Tarrant County.

"Even though these proposed interim maps aren't fully supported by all interest groups, modifications have been incorporated based on requests made by all parties. Today's maps should allow the court to finalize the interim redistricting maps in time to have elections in April," Abbott said in a written statement.

Monday was a court-set deadline: Three federal judges in San Antonio told the redistricting parties that they needed to reach an agreement by that date to preserve any hope of holding political primaries on April 3. Those primaries, already delayed from March 6, could be pushed back to May or June if maps aren't in place in time to stage the elections.

The timetable is still iffy. The judges already heard testimony from several election administrators who said they would need maps before the end of last month to conduct early April elections. And after the agreement was announced on Monday, the judges said in a court order that their hearing on that and other ideas would still be held on Feb. 15 and not on an earlier date.

The maps resemble those approved by the Legislature last year, but with changes to increase the number of districts where minorities have an opportunity to decide elections. Several organizations that banded together last year as the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force said they would back the state's proposal. That coalition includes MALDEF, Texas LULAC, the GI Forum and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, among others.

Any agreement that doesn't include MALC, the Legislative Black Caucus or the NAACP is a "non-starter" for the Texas Democratic Party, said Rebecca Acuña, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party. "The attorney general is clearly terrified that the D.C. court will find that the state’s maps are discriminatory in both effect and intent. Until there’s a legitimate agreement among the parties, we support the court continuing to do its work," she said.

In a conference call about the proposal, Abbott said he's confident that the state will have a primary in April. "The plan that is now posted — that will not be objected to by a large number of parties to this lawsuit — addresses all of the Section 5 and Section 2 objections [under the federal Voting Rights Act]," he said.

Abbott said the proposal would allow the court to put the maps in place in time to cause only a small delay instead of a big one.

"I can't necessarily say that April 3 will be the date … but elections could proceed, hopefully, on April 17," he said.

The proposed maps are posted on the Texas Legislative Service's website; the plans are numbered C226, S167 and H303.

The members of that Latino Redistricting Task Force said the state's proposal gives them almost all of what they were after when they filed suit over redistricting.

In particular, they said the proposal reflects the growth in the state's minority populations, particularly in the congressional plans that add four seats to the state's 32-member delegation.

Nina Perales, director of litigation for MALDEF, said that all but one of several changes sought by the group are included in the proposal, and that her group would be willing to leave these maps in place through 2020 — not just through the next election.

She said the proposal gives the court an opportunity to hold April 3 primary elections.

Holding primaries at the beginning of April will depend on whether the judges approve these maps and on how long it takes to resolve objections from the parties that haven't agreed.

The proposed map includes 97 House districts — out of 150 — where John McCain beat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

Voters in 24 of the 36 congressional districts in the map sided with McCain in 2008.

And in the 31-district Senate map, only five districts are different from those in the map drawn by the Legislature. That resulted in a map with 20 districts that voted for McCain in 2008. That matches what the Legislature drew. State Sen. Wendy Davis' district, which has been the subject of most of the arguments in that map, would be slightly less Republican in the proposed map — 52.6 percent McCain instead of 56 percent.

The task force plaintiffs said the new congressional plan includes nine Latino seats and keeps the number of seats dominated by black voters where it is now. In comparison with the Legislature's version, they said, the House map adds a Latino district in El Paso, restores two in Nueces County, creates a new Latino district in Cameron and Hidalgo counties and another new one in Harris County. Those changes better reflect the population changes in the last census, they said.

The maps still face substantial opposition, and haven't been approved by the federal judges overseeing the litigation.

But the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group backing some of the plaintiffs who didn't join the agreement, said the numbers aren't that great. By their tally, the AG's proposal for Congress includes 11 minority opportunity districts out of 36 seats. The current map, they said, also has 11 minority districts, but only has 32 seats total. None of the four new seats, by their count, would be dominated by minority voters.

The objections carry over to other maps, too.

"There is no agreement on a Senate map," said Davis, D-Fort Worth. "Rather than meet the concerns of Texas voters, the Texas attorney general continues to advance the same effort to dilute minority voting strength as we saw attempted in the 82nd legislative session.  This is not a good faith effort."

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who heads MALC, said the proposal doesn't go far enough, calling them "a beginning point, not an end." He said the court should focus on the maps and not on when the primaries will take place.

"While all the parties support a primary as soon as possible, we want to ensure that Texans have fair and legal redistricting maps," he said. "MALC is encouraged that with the issuance of these maps the attorney general has made it clear that he accepts the growing reality that the maps adopted by the state Legislature for the state House, state Senate and United States Congress were constitutionally flawed and require immediate remedial action."

Abbott's deal doesn't make all Republicans happy, either. In his conference call, the attorney general was asked about objections from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis. Abbott dismissed them, saying the congressman had been working to get a district that included the Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlington.

Abbott said he didn't think that was a big concern for the judges and it didn't involve any of the legal issues he and others are trying to resolve. In a written statement later, Barton said he would, in fact, like to keep the stadium in his district, but he said he's never had any conversations about his district lines with either Abbott or the AG's staff.

In an order at the end of the afternoon, the judges told the parties to keep talking and to be ready for hearings next week. "The court previously urged the parties to continue negotiations in an attempt to reach an agreement on interim redistricting plans. However, in the absence of a general agreement between all plaintiffs and the state of Texas, the parties are reminded that they must comply with all previously ordered deadlines. The parties should continue their negotiations to the extent possible, but all deadlines remain in place unless or until the court is notified that an agreement has been reached."

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